Picking the brain of South Park: Q & A with Trey Parker
Editor’s Note: Student Life Editor Eric Dresden, Senior Reporter Brad Canze, and Videographer Chris Slat all got a chance to sit down with “South Park” co-creator Trey Parker to talk with him about everything from his visit to Central Michigan University as well as upcoming episodes of “South Park.”
Eric Dresden: What brought around your decision to come out here?
Trey Parker: It really just came from Elliot Parker, who is my father’s cousin, and it’s pretty funny because actually my dad’s dad died in World War II, so there’s this whole side, the actual Parker side of the family, that we haven’t seen a whole lot of. Dad was psyched to reconnect with some of those people. So I got an e-mail from Elliot, just saying it would be great if you could come out, and do you ever do that kind of thing? And I said no I don’t, because I haven’t. I don’t go to schools and do that kind of thing. But my dad thought it would bekind of cool, so, you know, why not? It was really that basic of a decision.
Brad Canze: So have you done school talks before? Is this your first?
TP: Yeah. I mean, we’ve done things like the Aspen Comedy Festival, where it’s the same kind of thing, so it’s not like I’ve never talked about the show before. I know that other people do that. I have friends in L.A. that do that kind of thing, and it was like “Well what do you want your presentation to be?” And I was like, dude, I don’t know, I’ll just sit there and answer questions. I didn’t want to have to prepare for it or anything, because I’m definitely not a good teacher, I’m just a good (expletive, “B.S.er”).
BC: Word was that you paid your own way to get up here. Is that true?
TP: Oh, yeah. And that was my big stipulation. Don’t charge any tickets, and I don’t want to take any money away from the school. I’ve got plenty of money, I don’t want to make a school pay for my plane fare. We actually had my dad and my two friends, these guys we work with but they are also my friends and we hang out and do everything together, we actually just turned it into a big trip where we flew to Chicago, saw a game at Soldier Field, because we’re big football fans and had never seen a game there, and then flew out her for the day. So it’s a nice little trip. As a football fan, it was great to see a game a Soldier Field. Except for (“South Park” supervising producer) Frank (Agnone), because he’s a Steelers fan.
ED: So new seasons upcoming, where are you guys at with that?
TP: We basically right now have maybe four scenes from two shows. What we do now, it’s basically our kind of research and development phase. We do a couple writers’ retreats, where we just get the six of us or whatever, and just go somewhere for a week and kick around ideas. Usually the more crazy of those are ideas are the ideas that involve a lot of information or a lot of new characters. We’ll put a scene of that into production because it’s that same thing where we’ll kind of look at it. A good example of that is last season, we had this whole very vague joke about fish sticks and gay fish, and we couldn’t even get our heads around it. Like, what is the joke? This is so dumb. But we would go and start animating a couple scenes, because as soon as you do that, it’s amazing how really “South Park,” what’s great about it is we don’t hand off a finished script and send it off somewhere to animate. It’s really a sculpting process, because you get to see a scene, and you get to go “Oh, that would be funny if we change it and make this character instead, and we plug something else in,” and then change scenes here and there, and really sculpt it into what we want it to be.
ED: That entire episode, we were going to bring up that entire episode as well, that it incorporated Kanye…
BC: He’s kind of made even more of a fool of himself recently. Do you think that’s something you’d do more with?
TP: No, and to tell you here, we’re going into this season, and we’ve already done a big Michael Jackson show and we’ve already done a big Kanye show. So we’re kind of already shot in the foot with two big topics. We’ve gotta just come up with what else is going on.
Chris Slat: What are you hoping the students got out of this today?
TP: I can’t hope to teach them anything, but you can always hope that if someone’s into this kind of stuff, you can inspire them, just show that it is pretty fun. But, it’s really hard. Especially with college students, so many people think, “Well, you guys obviously just go to your office and get high and you make a show.” And if you’ve ever gotten high and tried to make a show, you know that’s impossible. We get there early, we drink our coffee and we work our (expletive, “behinds”) off, and we stress out and freak out over it and we work really hard. And then at the end when the season’s all over, we’re like, oh, that was fun, but it’s not fun while we’re doing it. It’s really hard work. That’s what I hope to kind of get across.
BC: Is there anything you guys are working on currently outside or “South Park”? I read that you were working on a musical about the Mormon church.
TP: Yeah, we’ve been working on it for six years now. We basically spent almost all of our summer in New York, finally seeing it with a cast. Broadway’s a really slow process anyway, but especially when we’ve got to put it down every three months and do “South Park.” So that’s why it’s taken so long, but it is definitely our major side-project we’re doing right now. We’re not officially doing it or anything, it’s something we’re just doing for fun, and if it stops being fun, we’ll stop doing it.
BC: Is there any timeline for that?
TP: No. But probably pretty soon, actually. Like I said, we finally saw it on its feet, so it’s becoming a real thing.
ED: The episode after the election was very timely. We all started to wonder, how did they get that out so quick? It was the day after. How did that formulate all together? Was it two episodes?
TP: That’s what’s funny, is a lot of people thought we made two, but if you’re at our office for a day, you’d see there’s no way we’re making two. Making one breaks our backs, there was no way we were making two. It was just a bet. I knew Obama was going to win. Actually, Matt was kind of like, “I don’t know if we should.” Matt was worried that it was actually going to be one of those weird recount things. He thought that’s what was going to happen. We just bet on it, I was really sure of it.
BC: Hypothetically, if Obama had lost, would the episode still have ran as-was?
TP: Yeah, I think we would have run it as it was, and then put some kind of thing along the bottom. It was like, “You were supposed to vote for Obama, what happened?”
CS: I know you haven’t been here very long. You flew in this morning?
TP: Yeah, I’ve literally seen the airport, and driving into campus. Flying into it and looking down, and seeing all he really nice houses on rivers and stuff, everyone’s reaction was like, “Wow, this is really pretty, and the air smells great.” I grew up in the mountains of Colorado, I grew up kind of in the middle of nowhere too, so we like this kind of stuff. This is our speed.
CS: Have you been to Michigan before?
TP: I don’t know if I’ve ever been to Michigan, actually. I don’t think so. Because I’m trying to hit every NFL stadium, but the Lions are definitely last on my list.
ED: Out of all the voices that you do, which one is your favorite?
TP: You know, I’m actually going to answer it differently. When I answered it earlier I said Cartman, just because I love being able to scream, at Matt especially, as Cartman. But I really like doing the voice of my dad, which is Stan’s dad, Randy Marsh. My dad is Randy Parker, but was Randy Marsh, when he was a kid. He didn’t learn he had a dad that died in World War II named Parker, and that’s who Elliot’s related to. But I really enjoy doing Randy Marsh now, because as I’m getting older I’m kind of becoming more that guy, too, so it gets easier and easier to do my impersonation of him.
BC: That’s your favorite voice to do. Do you have a favorite character on the show?
TP: I have two. Trying to get your head around a scene, like what’s the joke of this scene and how do you make this scene funny, it’s like, I know that if I have something that Cartman wants that Butters also wants, then I can write that scene in three minutes. So I love when Cartman and Butters are on screen together. And I love when Cartman and Kyle are on screen together too. But it’s a simple rule of opposites. You take Cartman and Butters, who are the most opposite characters we have, and put them in a situation, it’s instantly fun. I really love Butters, and I especially love him when Cartman’s around.
ED: Have you ever considered the possibility of another “South Park” movie?
TP: Yeah, we have. What’s funny is that every single cool idea we come up with gets sucked up into the show immediately. So the idea that we’re like, “Oh, you know what would be a really cool idea for a movie,” we just know it would come to that week on South Park where we have no ideas, and we’re like “Well we gotta do the movie.” In fact, it’s happened. It’s already happened, where we’re like “Oh, that could be a movie, let’s save that,” and then “Alright, it’s Friday, we’ve got nothing. Let’s use that,” and we’ve turned it into a 30-minute show. “Imaginationland” was that way, actually. The original idea of “Imaginationland,” about terrorists attacking our imagination, that was going to be the next movie. We really didn’t have a lot more of it thought out that that. And then there was one, where it was like a zombie movie but it was done with homeless people. That became an episode. So there’s a lot of things.
BC: You seem to be involved in everything in the production of “South Park,” from the writing to voices, you’ve directed most of the episodes, you do the music for “South Park” and every movie you’ve done. Is there anything you don’t do?
TP: I don’t manage people. That’s what Frank does, manage all the schedules and the time, and who’s going to get done what, when? That’s a big job. We’ve got a great crew now, and we’ve got great artists. We love when we can do a show, like we did a parody of “Heavy Metal,” to show off what people can actually do if they don’t have to use my crappy template of drawings. But it really goes back to that thing of, how are you going to pull off a show in a week? You’ve got to have a few people doing a lot of things. We’re friends with the “Simpsons” guys, and I’ve seen part of that production. They’ll bring in Bart, and she’ll go in there in the booth and she’ll read a Bart line, and there will be the director going “Alright, well try it like this.” Then she’ll read the next Bart line, but she can only be there for an hour, then they’ve got to bring her back. It’s just like, we’d never get anything done if we had to do that.
ED: How long can you see “South Park” going?
TP: I would have never guessed, none of us would have ever guessed we’d be sitting here, in our 13th season. Originally, we had an order for six, and we thought, “Alright, we’re going to do six episodes, and let’s make them really good, and we’ll always have this.” And then, two or three years in, we were like, “Wow, this has been a great run.” Then there was a time around the fifth season, where they were thinking about pulling it. Because these new guys came in to run Comedy Central, and were like “We got to get rid of them, they’re too expensive.” So we were like, “Okay, that was a great five-year run.” And we had a big five-year anniversary party. And then we did our 100th show party, then we thought, “Oh, hundredth show, okay, that’s it.” But I think in the same way of “The Simpsons” too, it really helps being an animated show, because there is some timelessness to it. The boys aren’t getting any older. And it’s also really nice that we have a show that’s about a town. It’s not “The Stan Marsh Show,” because every week, it could be about the teacher. Now it’s about the counsellor, now it’s about the kids, now Butters. It can always be something different. As of right now, we’re still waiting to come up with stuff.
ED: Another thing you mentioned while you were up here was kind of a feud with “Family Guy.” Not really a feud, but…
TP: It’s sort of a one-way feud. (Laughs) It really always started as a joke. There was a funny thing that happened with (“Simpsons” creator) Matt Groening. We were going out to dinner once with Matt Groening and he had his son there, and his son was, I think 12 or 13 at the time. And his son was just being kind of quite, being cool. And Matt Groening said, “You know, my son really just wanted to come meet you guys because you’re the ‘South Park’ guys.” And he’s like “Shut up, dad!” You know, just being a typical kid, and then Matt said his son had come home and said “Everyone at school thinks ‘Family Guy’ is better than ‘Simpsons.’” And it’s just like, you can’t win. You’re Matt Groening. You’re one of the most important people in American Television history, and your son still just thinks you’re a twat. You just can’t win. You can’t win with kids. It just started as a joke from that. It was this thing where people would constantly come up to us, to Matt and I, and be like “Oh my god, you’re the ‘South Park’ guys! I love ‘South Park.’ I love ‘South Park’ and I love ‘Family Guy.’” And at first we’re always just like, “Okay, cool, cool.” But it’s like, just because we’re animated, that’s where the similarities end. And then people would come up to us like, “Hey you guys like ‘Family Guy’? Isn’t that sweet?” And we did an episode where Kyle says, “Dude, you’re just like ‘Family Guy,’” and Cartman says, “Do not compare me to ‘Family Guy’!” And again it was me being able to get into Cartman’s body, and be like, “Alright. Stop comparing me to ‘Family Guy.’” And it’s just blown up as a joke from there. But competition breeds good stuff. “Imaginationland” completely came out of that. Which, you know, we really like that episode.
BC: You have a level of influence with people that watch that show, and have been for years. How do you feel about that, and is that something you ever think about when you’re making the show?
TP: I don’t think you can. It’s actually important, I think, not to. Even in something like “Team America,” that gets so political, we would always stop ourselves when we were sitting there, talking about the politics of it. I just think that art should be, you make it and you let people read into it what they want. It’s really crazy with “South Park,” how differently people will read into it. We’ll make a show and people on this side of it are like, “Oh see? They agree with me.” And then people on the complete other side of the argument will be like, “Oh see? They agree with me.” Obviously, it starts to be a lot of (expletive, “shenanigans”) to start thinking about, “Oh wow, this is affecting people.” Yes it is, but also, we also know we’re just this (expletive) dumb little cartoon and we can’t get too (expletive) full of ourselves. And so, all we can do is just try to make a good story, and make our friends laugh and do what we’ve always done, and not start thinking that we’re really hot (expletive).
BC: If people recognize you in public, what do they say to you?
TP: The most common thing is, “Hey, are you Matt Stone?” And it’s great, because I can always say “No, I’m not Matt Stone.” And then they’re “No, you are. You look just like him,” and I can say, “I look nothing like Matt Stone.” Then they’re like, “Oh that guy’s a (expletive). Matt Stone’s a (expletive).” But he gets the same thing. He tells me all the time that people come up to him like, “Hey, you’re Trey Parker.”
BC: You were in a band called DVDA. Are you still doing anything with that, and would you ever pursue music independent of your other showbusiness projects?
TP: It was a fun thing, when we were in our 20s, doing “South Park.” We actually had the “South Park” thing, and we had a little corner for our band. We would sit there and rehearse while people were drawing animation. (Laughs) But it was always just kind of a joke. But because “South Park” got big, we opened for Primus once, we opened for Ween. It started to get kind of ridiculous, but that fantasy’s sort of done with. But it’s always been a dream of mine to do a Broadway thing, and so if that ever works out, that’s where I’m at now, musically, is trying to do something like that.
CS: Have you given any thought to life after “South “Park”?
TP: Yeah, I’m gonna sit on a beach and (expletive) do nothing. Hopefully. I think we’re all going to take a big long vacation, for a few years. I’m pretty creatively satisfied. I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot I want to get out there. I don’t want to be a crotchety old guy saying, “Oh these kids don’t understand my stuff anymore.” I’m saying this now. I’m sure when I was 27 I said “When I’m 40 I don’t want to be (expletive) 40 still doing this stuff.” Now I can say I don’t want to be 60 and doing this stuff.
BC: What are your influences?
TP: Well growing up, it was Monty Python. That’s actually how Matt and I clicked, because we knew every Monty Python thing. It was that same thing of just like, rugged, crappy crap that just made no sense. And Terry Gilliam’s animation was a big influence for the animation of “South Park.” You find new inspirations every year. You find someone that’s really talented, like this last year, it was the guy that did that “Summer Heights High,” did you guys see that? “Summer Heights High” on HBO? He actually did it in Australia, an Australian TV show, and I was just like, “Wow.” And it’s always great to see something like that because it humbles you, and makes you go, “Oh yeah, right, right, I gotta work. I gotta work at doing something this great.” So you try to find something like that every year to kind of keep you going and push you.